Open Book News

Man or Myth?

Man or Myth?

I’ve fallen behind on my blogging – sorry about that. I’m up north with family and we have limited connectivity. And I don’t have enough stamps to send you each a postcard. Modern problems.

A week of respite, fresh air, and calm. Naturally my thoughts turn towards tragic, accidental death. We’re on Georgian Bay. Almost everywhere I look I see a Group of Seven painting, or the work of Tom Thomson. The images he created are Canadian icons (Pine Island, Georgian Bay, 1914-16; The Jack Pine, 1916-17). But it was of course on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park that Thomson, at the age of 39 drowned in July, 1917. Many still consider his death to be mysterious; some have even called it murder. There were numerous investigations, lead by both professionals and amateurs, and many books and articles written on the subject. There have also been written on his art, such as The Silence and the Storm, by Town and Silcox (McClelland & Stewart, 1977).

He influenced not only artists like the Group of Seven (and countless artists since), but writers, poets and songwriters as well. Roy MacGregor’s fictional interpretation of Thomson’s death, Shorelines, was published in 1980 and re-issued as Canoe Lake in 2002 (McClelland & Stewart). In 2010, Random House of Canada published MacGregor’s Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him. Poetry has been written, namely by Henry Beissel, Doug Barbour, and George Whipple (Tom Thomson and Other Poems; Penumbra Press, 2000), as well as popular songs like Three Pistols by The Tragically Hip. Thomson also figures in the Rheostatic’s song cycle, Music Inspired by the Group of Seven.

Next my mind turned to poet, novelist, columnist and reviewer Raymond Knister who was born in Essex County in 1899. He was raised in rural Ontario, but was no stranger to the city. He attended Victoria College in Toronto, wrote for The Border Cities Star in Windsor, and the Detroit Free Press; drove a cab in Chicago; returned to Toronto, where he met Morley Callaghan, to write freelance for the Toronto Star Weekly and Saturday Night; and lived for a time in Montreal where he met the poets of the Montreal Group, and poet Dorothy Livesay.

Knister made a name for himself in Canadian literary circles and is now considered to have been an important voice in Canadian writing in its transition from a more romantic and traditional to modern. His opus includes one hundred poems, as many short stories, and two novels.

He drowned in a swimming accident near Stoney Creek in Essex on August, 1932. He had been on a picnic with his family, and was about to begin work as an editor at Ryerson Press in Toronto. Dorothy Livesay believed it was suicide. Knister’s wife and daughter vigorously disputed any claims. His daughter wrote a memoir of him, Raymond Knister: Man or Myth?, which was published in Essays on Canadian Writing (No. 16, Fall-Winter 1979-80). Knister’s novel, White Narcissus, is available in a New Canadian Library edition. It was originally published in 1929. A previously unpublished novel, There Was a Mr. Cristi, was published by Black Moss Press in 2006.

Articles and works by and about Knister and Thomson can be found in contemporary editions of The Canadian Magazine.

Bill Barilko was an artist not with the pen or the brush but rather with the puck. Talk about mythology, this legendary Toronto Maple Leaf defenceman inspired the Tragically Hip song, “Fifty Mission Cap,” which pretty much sums up the lore and legend surrounding this young man who, returning from a fishing trip, died in a floatplane crash near Cochrane, Ontario in 1951.

The line in the song, “The last goal he ever scored/ Won the Leafs the Cup/ They didn’t win another ‘til 1962/ The year he was discovered,” not only reinforces the myth of Barilko but the notion of the Stanley Cup as a sort of Holy Grail. There have been a couple books on the Barilko myth: Overtime, Overdue: The Bill Barilko Story, by John Melady (City Print, 1988), and Barilko: Without a Trace, by Kevin Shea (Fenn, 2004). And if you want iconography, there is always his rookie hockey card.

Who knows how differently our cultural history might be now had these individuals lived on to win more Stanley Cups, paint more Ontario landscapes, or write more novels about our experience. Something for me to ponder while I’m lounging on a deck chair, complaining about connectivity issues.

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